Civil rights activist asks to keep ‘barriers broken’

Zach Smart

Quinnipiac students heard a speech delivered by a historical icon Feb. 28. Bernard Lafayette Jr., a civil rights activist, sat behind the podium before a packed crowd of about 170 at the Law School’s Grand Courtroom. He talked about how the barriers that he and others overcame were part of a pilgrimage from a treacherous place, one from which this nation should never return.

“The barriers (we broke) will only be temporary unless they are institutionalized and become a way of life for people. It’s not enough to change the law. We have to change the values, which then changes the behavior of people,” Lafayette said.

Lafayette, a Florida native, accepted the annual Thurgood Marshall Award in an event sponsored by the Quinnipiac University School of Law and the Black Law Student Association.

In accepting the award, Lafayette was essentially tapped into an elite society that includes a bevy of household names, including funnyman Bill Cosby and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. The award is given to people who simulate the values of Thurgood Marshall, the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice in 1967.

“We selected Dr. Lafayette because he represents something so significant in black history,” said Christian Philemon, who organized the lecture. “It was fitting to have someone who was actually a piece of black history.”

Lafayette suffered brutal beatings along with unjust jailing as a peaceful activist in the racially divided South of the 1960s.

Lafayette was a pioneer in the black community, co-founding the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960. He helped lead of the 1960 Nashville Movement, the Freedom Rides of 1961, and the Selma Movement of 1965. In addition, Lafayette orchestrated the Alabama Voter Registration Project in 1962 and was named National Coordinator of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign by Martin Luther King Jr.

Lafayette served as a mentor to law school professor Marilyn Ford, the event coordinator. “I hope that people understand exactly what Dr. Lafayette means to the African-American community, what he means to our history and our future,” Philemon said.

Philemon, who is black, is a law student at Quinnipiac. He credits Lafayette for being a champion of racial equality.

“I like to think that, thanks to what Dr. Lafayette did then, I’m able to do what I’m doing now, which is be an African-American sitting side by side with white students in a law school,” he said.

The Black Law Students Association additionally handed out the 2007 Community Service Award and Youth In Service Award, which went to Craig Kelly and Dominique Jefferson, respectively.

Kelly is a former firefighter who saved two people who were pinned under the collapsed L’Ambiance Plaza in Bridgeport in 1987. Also he is the newly elected president of the Greater Bridgeport chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Jefferson, a high honors student at Metropolitan Business High School in New Haven, is studying Mandarin at Yale while volunteering to help New Haven residents in search for jobs. She worked on New Haven Mayor John DeStefano’s gubernational campaign last year.

Also honored was a pair of law students, Isaias Diaz and Tushar Shah. The duo finished sixth in a recent mock trial debate. “It was a great honor to bring home the school’s first regional championship,” said Diaz, who added that Shah was his student coach.